The real estate agent drove them forty-five minutes outside of St. Anne’s Cove, a harbor town on Canada’s Pacific coast. That far out, the paved road gave way to gravel. When the agent’s SUV trundled over a lump of uneven stone, Will winced: Two ribs had been broken in their last rendezvous with the sea, and though they had healed under a doctor’s care, they still seemed to ache when unexpectedly jostled.
Once the road smoothed out again, the three of them emerged at the end of a narrow lane lined with thick Norwegian spruce. The house looked to Will like one of the luxury hunting lodges they advertised in fishing magazines. Its face was composed of stacked stone, and from the multiple chimneys, Will gathered there were several fireplaces inside. Behind the house was a wide, dark lake; at the far side of the shore there were a scant handful of other homes, too distant to make out clearly — mostly summer properties, the agent explained.
They stood mostly empty then, in the early November snow.
“This place is just,” she clasped her hands as they made their way to the porch, “amazing. I can’t wait to show it to you. It’s got the kitchen, it’s got a dock, it’s got — it’s got a brand-new root cellar.”
Hannibal gave a pleased hum.
“The previous owner was an executive with one of the local oil companies,” she went on, sweeping them into the grand foyer, “had this place built, and, well, whoosh! Natural gas boom down south. So, he moved. Never stayed here a night.”
Night echoed as she closed the door behind them. Natural stone flooring led the eye to a grand birch staircase, and then on up to high, vaulted ceilings with thick wooden beams. A chandelier fashioned of elk antlers hung suspended far overhead, casting shadows like thick bramble. The image they projected was familiar, and yet Will did not feel the lurching unease he had come to associate with it. In this light, they were merely decorations. He tilted his head at this private realization and ventured further on.
Will followed the agent as she led them into the living room — which Hannibal would call a sitting room and he would call a den — a vast space with a veritable wall of windows offering a stunning vista of the lake. A small wooden dock and simple boathouse met the water at the shore.
“Are there fish?” Will asked suddenly.
“Oh yeah, I think there have to be fish,” the agent readily replied, “most of these homes on the far shore here, they’re summer homes, and in the warm months you see people out in boats all the time.”
Will nodded, and after a long, lingering moment staring at the reflection of the tall pines on the water, he followed Hannibal and the agent to the kitchen. It was the sort of theater Hannibal preferred for his performances: gas range, double ovens, plenty of capacious cabinet space. Hannibal drifted past the butcher’s block, running a fingertip over lightly finished elm. Here, too, there were clean modern lines, wide open windows, streams of watery, overcast light.
An hour later, they stood on the end of the wooden deck as the agent took a call — or so she said — indoors. Hannibal rested his hands in his pockets. Will gazed out over the still lake.
“What do you think?” Hannibal asked.
“I think you like it,” Will said.
“But what do you think?”
“It’s a house,” Will shrugged, and then thought better of it: “The lake is nice.”
“Not too far from the harbor, either,” Hannibal observed.
“Yeah. It’s a good distance. We’ll have to get a flatbed, if I’m gonna take anything out there.”
“I imagine you’ll need a shed as well.”
Will turned to face the stretch of shoreline where a small boathouse overlooked the water. A little further up the soft slope was a greenhouse, and to its side, a stretch of bare earth.
“Could build one right there,” he said, shaping the simple sides of a square and gabled roof with his hands. “Wouldn’t be hard.”
Their agent assured them that they would be ready for move-in in less than a week. She began listing a number of hotels that might accommodate them during the waiting period as the inspectors completed their final walk-through and the contractors refitted the upstairs rooms with panoramic windows to match the downstairs ones at Hannibal’s request.
Hannibal politely stopped her halfway through her list with a soft gesture of his hand. “Thank you very much. I’m sure this all seems very impulsive,” Will didn’t miss the conspiratorial glance shot his way, “but we’re very much set on the area. My husband,” the designation set Will on edge; he wasn’t sure when he had become a husband, but all logic dictated that Hannibal’s version of their story was the best one to tell, “grew up near a lake. He’s an avid fisherman and has had to abstain due to the location of my practice and our previous home.” In truth, Will had grown up by many different lakes, but the feeling of calm they engendered within him was always the same.
“Ah! Of course, that’s good to hear. Well, that being the case, I’d love to get you folks back to your plans before dinnertime.” The agent double-checked the locks once more before they returned to the SUV and made their way back to her office in town.
“Are you sure you don’t want to see any other properties today before you make the big decision?” She used one hand to maneuver her car out of the driveway and the other to form air quotes around the big decision .
Will purposely avoided Hannibal’s gaze this time as he watched the lake and house disappear into the distance outside the car’s window.
“There’s something about it…” Will murmured more candidly than he was used to. In truth, it was a certain nostalgia. Another boat, another sea.
He always had been a very talented fisherman.
The first purchase Will made once they moved into their new house was uncharacteristically lavish, seeing as he now depended on Hannibal entirely in terms of finances. The part of him that had always been self-sufficient — a latent vestige of machismo — rankled at the idea of buying something expensive on another man’s dime. He was only able to soothe himself by reasoning that a pickup truck was necessarily functional for their new lifestyle, and it didn’t seem as presumptuous as a flatbed.
Hannibal agreed, but refused to purchase the 98 Ford F-150 Will had haggled down to $4,499.
“I don’t doubt your skill in mechanics, Will,” Hannibal assured him. “I just doubt you find this vehicle particularly charming.” Hannibal muttered the word vehicle as if he were unsure the old Ford merited the title.
“It’s serviceable.” Will punctuated his comment with an open-palmed gesture towards the car in question.
“But not particularly charming.”
Hannibal deserted Will to find a service representative about a newer, current-year model. Will found himself uninclined to offer further opinions on the economy of his first choice until he heard the salesman begin to list off potential add-ons, at which point Will sidled over and asserted that, “The base model should be fine.”
Once the paperwork was approved and signed, Will and Hannibal found themselves ushered to the front of the store where a pristine, black F-250 awaited them.
“I haven’t driven a truck in quite some time. I imagine you’re more suited to it.” Hannibal unlocked the doors with a click of the key fob before turning it over to Will and taking his place in the passenger seat.
Will could not think of a time he had ever driven Hannibal, but then again, they had seldom ridden in the car together before this. He lifted himself up into the cab with some difficulty caused by the stiffness in his side, but settled in nicely by the time the engine turned over.
They drove in silence while Hannibal wistfully inspected the interior of the new car and Will followed the roads back towards the lonely two-lane highway that led to their lakeside property.
The first room in their new home to receive Hannibal’s attentions, no surprise, was the kitchen. Heavy crockery arrived on their doorstep with French postage while kitchen knives from Japan were packed for safety purposes in latched, velvet-lined cases and wooden crates.
Hannibal procured dishtowels and the more common kitchen staples from a boutiquey home goods store in town. It amazed Will to see the volume of appliances that made their way into their house and watched them all disappear again to their rightful places underneath countertops and behind cupboard doors. Just as before, Will was no more a part of this kitchen as he had been a part of the one in Baltimore. His only addition was a cheap set of pots and pans that he secreted away in a box and placed on the top shelf of the pantry.
“For camping,” Will explained.
A smile quirked Hannibal’s lips, “Lightweight and functional for an outdoorsman such as yourself. Though I wonder if you plan to go anytime soon considering the faraway home you’ve banished them to.”
The next morning, Will found his pots and pans drying in the dish rack beside the sink, and a lovely plated breakfast of grilled corn cakes topped with poached eggs and smoked salmon.
Hannibal pulled out Will’s seat for him and gestured to a small dish of freshly chopped chives and a peppermill that sat between their two plates.
“Pans should be seasoned, even if they’re meant for storage.” Hannibal playfully speared a tomato with the tines of his fork and spared a glance towards the dish rack. “I’d like to fit in a camping trip before the winter season this year, so I’ve relocated the spare cookware to a spot with the rest of the pots and pans below the range. I hope you don’t mind. It’s a personal whim, I confess.”
“It wouldn’t be a terrible idea to survey the surrounding woods before winter really hits.” Will mopped up his busted egg yolk with the crunchy edge of his corn cake, and chewed thoughtfully. “Have you ever camped before?” Will had taken to avoiding the use of Hannibal’s name. Hannibal was to be called Eric now, and Will was John...Swann.
“I would dare to say that I’ve camped in some places far more adventurous than you have.” Hannibal answered cryptically. “More orange juice, Will?” He held up a small carafe and poured once Will nodded his assent.
Hannibal slept as he lived: well. There was no bed that was merely a bed; no bed would simply do. It had taken him time to find the appropriate one for the space they now shared: a sturdy dark wood base to anchor the room, which was otherwise dressed in pale neutrals and the occasional smoky evergreen to answer the chalky stone and densely wooded vista outside. Its headboard was a natural, irregular slab of wood, the pattern of its grain bright and visible through the finish. There was a stacked stone fireplace in the corner, and a bank of wide, tall windows on the eastern wall.
When they had come to the house, Will had already been sleeping alongside Hannibal for weeks in hotels; it was necessary due to his injuries. He couldn’t be trusted to lie down or sit up without help until each stitched wound had healed, and each set bone had fused anew. That point finally came a little while after the two of them had begun sleeping in this very bed together, sometime in the deep winter, and it was at that point Will had to reckon with the fact that he intended to stay.
It was silly, at first, just pride. It was his house, too; there was no reason for him to be relegated to a guest room in his own home. In retrospect that entire line of reasoning seemed transparently flimsy to him.
And then there was the cold, and the piercing wind and snow that piled drifts high up the birch trunks, until the landscape outside their frozen windows looked like a vast wilderness of skeletal fingertips.
Hannibal kindled immense fires in the bedroom hearth as soon as the sun disappeared, and by the time they retired the room was warm and the embers kept it so throughout the night, or at least long enough to fall comfortably asleep.
It occurred to Will the way this looked, what it would entail. By the midpoint of winter he was no longer sure whether he was dreading or anticipating it, and Hannibal still had made no move to touch him.
When the thaw began, Will could hear water trickling in every part of the house. Little brooks formed in the snow. The ice on the eaves dissolved, and soil appeared near the foundations of the house, where all winter there had been only thick frost. The lake seemed to rise, and slowly, cautiously, buds appeared on the birch trees.
It was an evening in mid-March when Will came back from the harbor and joined Hannibal for dinner, as he always did unless he was slouching on a stool at the local pub, watching old games of hockey on a skipping TV screen. Hannibal had made something good but unremarkable; unremarkable for him, anyway. Will didn’t see any special meaning in it.
In fact, the evening itself was unremarkable, with the two of them retiring to the living room to absently chat about the lake a while before heading up for bed, and it was there at their bedside that Hannibal’s warm hand closed over Will’s shoulder, and he kissed him.
The kiss was intimate, sure lips pressed to the crook of Will’s neck. It was an unusual first kiss that seemed more appropriate for lovers who had already built up to a certain level of familiarity. Will’s body stilled immediately. He felt the thick swallow of his throat over his adam’s apple and cleared his throat reflexively.
He couldn’t help but feel that he liked it this way. A kiss on the lips would have required him to reciprocate — or not — it was impossible to say what he would have done in that case. A kiss on the neck, however, allowed him to revel in the affectionate touch. Will’s eyes fluttered closed. He took a deep breath through his nose to calm the flicker of anxious excitement in his heart and reached up to hold Hannibal’s hand in his own.
“I’ll try.” The statement was absurd, and quite frankly, more than a little insulting, but it was all Will could manage. He wasn’t sure if he’d like it or not, but recently Will found himself thinking more often than not that he might.
“Of course,” Hannibal supplied, almost cordial. But there was a heat in his voice that Will didn’t recognize from their prior conversations, except in those hazy blood-soaked memories of their slaying of the Dragon, with the sea roaring in his ears.
This was all I ever wanted for you, Will…
Hannibal undressed Will as if dressing him in reverse. Each action was taken with reverence. The sweater Hannibal had gotten him for Christmas that looked remarkably like one he used to own in Wolf Trap, a well-worn flannel that Hannibal had cleaned fastidiously as soon as Will brought it home from the thrift shop, a belt that Will had had to punch holes in to fit his waist after a lean winter.
A sharp breath.
Shh... Hannibal coaxed Will to calm himself as strong hands began to ease stiff khakis down his hips.
Will’s own hands rushed skittishly to stop them in their tracks. He held Hannibal’s wrists in a bruising grip and began to pant nervously. His chest felt full of burning acid. He probably wheezed, but he felt his rising erection too — livening with a sensitivity he hadn’t remembered feeling since his teenage years.
Hannibal’s eyes locked on his, searching darkly.
“You can’t possibly be afraid of pain anymore,” he said finally, the pads of his thumbs running over the teeth of Will’s parted zipper. “What has you hesitating?”
“Is this really that easy for you? Don’t you have any reservations?” Will’s grip softened.
“You decided at some point before now that this was how things would be. How much did you know about me when you made that decision?” Will brought a hand to the back of his neck where Hannibal had kissed it just a few moments before.
Hannibal followed Will’s hand, sliding his fingers around the back of his neck and drawing him into a real kiss. There was the taste of wine, and salt, and Will’s pulse fluttered under his hand.
“I knew everything about you that I needed to know,” he supplied lowly. “And this is just — higher learning. Carnal knowledge, as the scholars say. To know you.” His hand eased inside Will’s slacks, where the stiff press of his sex fit snug in Hannibal’s palm.
This small gesture did more to calm Will than he cared to admit, but he imagined the doctor would know it without Will saying from the slowing of his breaths. Hannibal held him through the protective barrier of his briefs, never pushing further than Will could accept at any given moment.
Will shuddered knowing there was an intense psychological intimacy in that.
He cleared his throat and asked in a small, crackling voice, “Have you done this before?” Color rose on Will’s cheeks, virginal and frustrated. He cracked his jaw and frowned around the words as if they tasted bitter, but all he tasted were the faint traces of Hannibal’s tongue that had swiped between parted lips and been rebuffed by clenched teeth.
“I have,” Hannibal answered, and nothing more; anything more would have been unseemly. He drew back, leaving the fly of Will’s pants parted, and began to unbutton his shirt, laying it aside shortly, and then peeling his undershirt off with practiced ease. He brought both hands back to Will’s shoulders, then, smoothing down his chest and belly, settling on the loosened waist of his slacks. “Lie down,” he advised finally, half in consideration of Will’s trembling, and half of his resistance.
This, in itself, was not unlike encounters Will had had with women before. He was reminded of Margot. She had treated him remarkably similarly, but after pushing him to the bed and depositing herself in his lap she had slid herself onto an erection he hadn’t been sure he could sustain through the veiled buzz of the alcohol they had shared.
Will was more lucid now than he had been then, and in the back of his mind, he knew this would be different.
Back then, when they were done and Margot had rolled to his side to curl softly against his body, he ran his fingers through her hair and asked her what it was like.
He had meant to ask what it was like to sleep with someone you knew you were inherently incompatible with.
She had told him what it was like to have a man inside of her.
He laid down this time on a bed much finer than the one from his memories and rested a palm on Hannibal’s hip as he drew closer between Will’s legs. He looked at Hannibal’s half-naked form; it should have been intimidating, but it was not. He knew he could ask for it to stop at any point and his wishes would be honored, but he also knew he wouldn’t.
Will was glorious naked. Hannibal had always imagined he would be, having felt him through his clothes on a handful of occasions, and seen him next to nude in the course of treating his wounds from the fall. But he was splendid in his completeness, only dimly scarred, vigorously muscled and younger than his expression usually suggested; he was uncut, and Hannibal ran his thumb over the tip of his penis lightly.
Will moaned and Hannibal was gladdened to know he was at least unashamed of these vocalizations.
“Exquisite,” he sighed fondly, and found Will’s eyes again, a smile lifting the corners of his own. He reached over Will to the nightstand, where he kept a nondescript tube of surgical grade lubricant.
Will wasn’t sure if he was ready to see Hannibal completely naked yet, but he didn’t like the idea of being naked alone either. He brought his other hand to Hannibal’s front and undid his belt and slacks before pushing both pants and underwear down over the sharp cut of Hannibal’s hips.
He groped at Hannibal’s dick a little too hard, muttered sorry under his breath, and then began to stroke it to match his own erection.
Hannibal rolled his hips into Will’s fist obligingly, his features momentarily slack with pleasure. Will could hear him divest himself of the rest of his clothing, and then a subtle liquid sound, as Hannibal warmed the lubricant between his palms.
A moment later, he felt Hannibal’s finger, tentative and slick.
Will was tight, unquestionably a virgin. It would take time, Hannibal thought — and finally they had just that, world enough and time . He kissed Will’s thighs as he opened him, first chaste and adoring, and then with teeth, with jealousy, with the intent to mark. As he nudged the second finger inside he pressed his lips to the base of Will’s cock, almost as if in apology.
It wasn’t a surprise when Will’s erection began to flag a bit, but it wasn’t the pain. It was the nerves.
Will shifted his hips anxiously and chewed at the inside of his cheek waiting for things to click and unfold — to meet expectations he didn’t know he had.
A warm hand settled on his stomach. Will was partially aware of Hannibal telling him to breathe again, but it all drowned out to his own voice as Hannibal pressed against Will’s prostate.
His vision blurred out of focus; when he fixed his eyes again on Hannibal above him, the other man’s pupils were wide and fathomless.
“Hannibal?” His voice sounded thin and strained even in his own ears.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about you when I was with Molly,” Will panted. “Not that way —” he attempted to amend, “— not particularly at least.”
This much intrigued Hannibal. The fact that Will had decided to offer this information unsolicited when it was that much easier for him to recede into the background, let the tide of their consummation wash over him, wash him clean, in a sense.
Hannibal was pressing against him now, and Will’s focus narrowed to that singular feeling of being pierced.
The sound he made was not unlike the guttural moan of anguish he had released when Hannibal had sliced into his lower belly with a linoleum knife. And just like then, Hannibal shushed him lovingly and caressed his sweating forehead. Unlike then, he paused his motions and gently stroked Will’s taut rim, a single fingertip teasing along the place they joined.
Will remembered the frenetic way Hannibal had spoken back then in his blood-soaked kitchen, and the memory was strangely comforting now.
“Put your head back. Close your eyes. Wade into the quiet of the stream.”
It was the knowledge that although he did not show it, somewhere behind Hannibal’s intensely thoughtful gaze, he was also unsure of certain aspects of their redefined relationship and how their separate lives might come to eventually settle as one.
He seemed, Will thought dimly, to be finding his rhythm.
Then spring gave way to summer.
In late August, Hannibal watched from a kitchen window as Will stood back from his newly built shed, hands on his hips, and nodded to himself in satisfaction. It was late summer now, with fireworks nightly over the bay, and Will had worked up a decent sweat finishing his project. When he entered through the patio door a few moments later, it was with a serene air of finality.
“Well,” he said, “it’s finished.”
He appeared in the doorway sans shoes and flannel, dressed only in his jeans and undershirt.
“A job well done.”
Will perked up at the scent wafting from the pot Hannibal had been bent over for the past hour or so. “What’s that?”
“Moqueca, a Brazilian fish stew. I’ve had to dispose of all the sea trout you brought home. It pairs well with sangria.”
“Sorry about all the trout,” Will grinned, “old man’s boat was a tricky fix.” He washed his hands in the deep farmhouse sink, scrubbing up to the elbow. He had purchased a boat in ill repair at the harbor soon after arriving, and had attracted the admiration of the older boatmen and fishers by putting its motor back together piece by piece through the winter months. It had gone more slowly than Will would have liked, but he hadn’t been fool enough to start building his shed only to be halted by the snow; and this at least kept his hands busy. Now he took on repairs as a side job, sometimes paid in trade, as in the case of the trout. Mostly he had begun to take tourists out on whale-watching tours as they entered the summer months.
“There are worse troubles than too much sea trout,” Hannibal concluded.
“Mmhm,” Will agreed. “Tell me about it.”
He fit his body against Hannibal’s, encircling him from behind, scrubbed palms sliding down into suit slack pockets.
“Did men ever excite you like this when you had only been with women?”
Will stilled against him, but didn’t tense. They had this policy, now, of radical transparency: Will’s idea at first, but one that Hannibal readily agreed with. It had been necessary to build trust between them. They had gotten as far as killing the Dragon without so much as a shred of it, but their sudden absolute dependency on one another required more. It was decided they would ask whenever curious and answer truthfully, frankly, immediately.
“I wouldn’t say men excite me now,” Will supplied slowly.
“And yet, seemingly to the contrary…”
Will huffed a laugh. “But it isn’t the fact that you’re a man. It’s just...you.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere.”
“You’re an acquired taste, is what I mean to say. A very distinctive one.”
“Sometimes you don’t realize you have a craving until you indulge it. Here,” Hannibal half-turned with a spoonful of stew, and Will parted his lips before closing them around it.
“Mm,” he hummed, and he did want it, now that he tasted it.
After supper they sat together on the little wooden dock, their feet in the water. Hannibal sipped sangria; Will gestured to the gulls turning overhead with the neck of his beer.
“They come inland for the summer,” he pointed out, “breeding season. Must nest around here.”
“It would stand to reason,” Hannibal said.
A chorus of crickets rose up against a bass of croaking bullfrogs. The sun disappeared behind the trees, and the evening light dimmed to a mellow violet. Stars appeared dimly on the surface of the lake, brightening in the sky.
Late summer. Will had never imagined they would have peace like this, either separately or together. And it was strange, he thought, how rarely he remembered the jagged sea rocks and the frozen coast, given how often he leaned into the salt spray rising off the prow of his boat, or stared out over open water. Already, that catastrophe — that trauma — felt far, far away.
Beside him, Hannibal stirred.
“Going in for a refill?”
“Going in for the night, I think,” Hannibal answered. “I’ve an early appointment.”
Will nodded again and regarded the lake as Hannibal’s steps gently sounded on the dock.
“Wait a minute,” Will said softly. “I’ll join you.”
Will undressed in the bathroom, but not out of modesty, not anymore.
By now, the slight darkening of his skin — a luxury afforded to him through his new lifestyle of relatively responsibility-free outdoor living — showed the outline of a ring whether he was wearing one or not. He cradled his left hand in his right and examined it; used his thumb to rub along the joint closest to his palm.
Each day the surface skin cells above and below the edges of the band would darken or lighten imperceptibly like vows renewed.
Back when they had established this ruse — a pair of married men, lucky with a little family money, flush with Hannibal’s psychiatry practice — Hannibal had related to him the story of their courtship, their marriage. If they were ever asked about it, the stories would need to match.
“I knelt before you when I gave you that ring,” Hannibal had said.
Will could see it in his mind’s eye. He thought back to the moment Hannibal had slipped the ring onto his finger for the first time. “ I recited to you from Keats. ‘O breathe a word or two of fire,
Smile, as if those words should burn me’...You consented right away.”
Will had chuckled disbelievingly. “ Of course I did. ”
Hannibal had told him the story of their wedding — a private affair at a friend’s home in the Adirondacks, no photographer — and then their life along the upper east coast, in Maine. They had moved here, to be nearer to Will’s relatives. When he told the story of their house-hunting, it was simply the truth, what had actually happened. The same conversation about the shed, the same cheerful realtor. The line between the truth and the deception had begun to dissolve, and Will thought if he could just hang onto the fact that this sham ring was merely a prop —
But it wasn’t a sham ring, wasn’t a prop. The metal had worn down a bit so that it fit snug against his finger. His skin was light underneath it, sheltered by it. It was his, now.
In time, the house began to feel empty with just Hannibal and Will to occupy it. At one time there had been an abortive conversation about adoption.
“There was a time when you did not balk at the idea of having a child,” Hannibal had pointed out.
“It’s not —” Will had almost wanted to say that Abigail had been special. She had been their daughter, and they had served her as poorly as her own biological father. He no longer desired that kind of life. “I’m much older now.” He said with a finality that would not brook argument.
If Hannibal had understood the true root of Will’s reservations, he hadn’t shown it. He just cleared Will’s plate and brought back some deconstructed version of a brandied apple tart.
Two weeks later, seemingly out of nowhere, Will furrowed his brow and placed his book on the coffee table. He swung his legs down from the couch he had been reclined on and sat with his fingers laced together in his lap.
As if he could predict the weight of the impending conversation, Hannibal crossed the room to lift the needle off of the record playing Satie’s Gymnopédies by the hearth and returned to take a seat beside Will on the couch.
He placed a warm palm over the clasp of Will’s fingers, but made no further intrusion into Will’s personal space.
“I don’t think there can ever be another Abigail. I’ve tried to warm myself up to the idea because it seemed so important to have a family — to be a family — at the time…” Will looked up at the armchair Hannibal had vacated upon switching off the music. He stared at it and directed his anguish from Abigail’s loss towards its high back.
“It was callous of me to mention, Will. I regret it. Had I known it would cause you such substantial unrest, I would have —”
“You’re not my psychiatrist anymore. We’re partners. I have to be more...” open? Honest? “I have to be more more forthcoming about the things that are bothering me because it isn’t your job to dig anymore.”
Hannibal grinned supportively as Will finally turned his gaze back on him. The vulnerability of Will’s honesty made him look youthful again. Hannibal had only seen it once in pictures when he had visited Will in Wolf Trap on a bright Sunday morning while the introverted man was moving boxes into his attic.
Most of the boxes had been filled with old case files, but that included a good number of reference materials — books and maps he felt comfortable parting with for a time to make room for others. In the midst of Will’s organizational spree, Hannibal had noticed a couple of albums spread on the table. Hannibal had flipped the crackled cover of the one nearest to him back and seen the face of a woman who was no doubt Will’s mother. He had been so engrossed in looking through these early lives of people he’d never met that he hadn’t noticed Will taking a break from ferrying boxes up and down the stairs. He had only just gotten to the pages that bore pictures of a curly-haired baby when Will sank into the couch beside him and crossed his arms with a leg propped up on the edge of the coffee table.
“You were getting to the end,” Will said and turned back to the first photo in the book, stroking the cheek of his photographed mother fondly. The woman had probably taken most of these pictures before she passed, taking this photograph family along with her.
“The end of that one, but I see another.” Hannibal knew well enough that this album would be filled with different memories. The styling of the second album was much newer, more minimal.
Will reclined back into his seat, breathing deeply and more than thankful for the unplanned respite from his heavy lifting.
Inside the album were pictures of Will’s academy days, his first day in uniform at his New Orleans precinct, a couple of fishing trips complete with prize catfish and trout — one, very cheeky, showed Will leaning back in sunglasses and a trucker hat with considerable tension in his rod and a cigarette held at the corner of smiling lips.
Hannibal raised an eyebrow and Will had chuckled fondly.
“Didn’t end up catching it. Snapped the line clean through. I’m sure it was a gar, devastating…”
And even though Will had smiled at the remembrance back then, just like in the picture, he hadn’t looked the same. Today, however — beneath Will’s sorrow — Hannibal saw shades of the young man on the banks of the Mississippi.
A month after that, Hannibal took a clandestine day trip into town which allowed Will the opportunity to spend a lazy day out on the lake in a small motorboat they kept moored to the end of their dock. Will hadn’t touched it since he had towed it from the marina back to their home in the springtime, and it reminded him strangely of how rarely he fished on his own anymore.
When he wasn’t at home, he spent his time down at the harbor, and the docks were full of retirees and career seafolk. At first Will had been able to refuse their invitations on the premise that he wanted to finish a few scheduled boat repairs first, but this meant he finished his repairs sooner rather than later and quickly ran out of excuses. In the end, he learned he didn’t mind this sort of company and even kept a few beers to share in the ice chest he always brought with him to his boat.
Will turned the small boat back from the middle of the lake and towards their home dock when the sun began to set. He noticed that Hannibal’s car was still parked in the driveway while his own truck was conspicuously missing. But as soon as he thought about the oddity this presented, he heard the gravel further up the road crunching under the weight of a larger vehicle.
He waved once Hannibal drove close enough to see and covered his mouth in stunned excitement when the passenger seat window was rolled down and the mottled head of Hannibal’s furred companion poked out to survey his new home.
Hannibal parked in the drive and was able to extract himself and his hound from the car before Will arrived to meet them.
“What’s his name?” Will immediately hunched over into a squat and scratched roughly behind the dog’s ear. He allowed it for a minute before tossing his head to the side and licking at the rough stubble of Will’s bearded cheek.
“Actaeon, and he’s a prize-winning hunting companion even though he doesn’t compete anymore. I thought he might like spending his retirement years with us.” Hannibal kneeled beside Will and unclipped the dog’s leash. He let out a short, sharp whistle and Actaeon immediately calmed between them.
Will laughed fondly and stroked the crown of the bluetick coonhound’s head with the flat of his palm. He wasn’t necessarily disappointed by Hannibal’s choice in dogs, but Will had never owned a dog that wasn’t a stray or didn’t come from the pound. He didn’t keep them around for the sake of owning pets. Will kept them because he knew he could offer a home that they might not find elsewhere.
Still, it felt meaningful.
“You know he’ll howl something fierce. Sometimes in the middle of the night.” Will tugged playfully at the hound’s floppy ear which prompted Actaeon to stand once more with his tail and hindquarters wagging from side to side. “Can’t stop a hound from being a hound.”
“Indeed.” Hannibal agreed.
By the end of summer, Will was ready to embark on his first hunting trip with Actaeon at his side.
“Will you be out for long?” Hannibal tsked as Will decided to pass on breakfast and instead packed small bags of snacks for himself and his hound.
Will quickly finished the piece of toast he had been eating, a small concession he made once Hannibal pressed further. He held out the remaining bit of crust for Actaeon to steal. “Not long. If I don’t have any luck by dusk, I won’t have any luck at all. Home in time for dinner…” He added knowingly.
“Then we’ll have venison or pheasant, should you manage to triumph over your quarry.”
“I don’t think the pheasant make it this far north.”
Hannibal strode to the front door and opened it courteously for Will as he approached. He picked up the small metal clicker Will had trained Actaeon to respond to when they were separated out in the woods and slid the device into Will’s front pocket.
“Be safe.” Hannibal straightened out Will’s vest and held Will’s chin between two elegant fingers to press a warm kiss farewell to his husband's lips.
Will watched as Hannibal closed his eyes and felt as Hannibal rested his arm in the small of Will’s back. It was a picture perfect moment of intimacy and he found that in this, the lives of John Swann and Will Graham could begin to align.
When their lips separated, there was a barely audible wet sound that brought heat to Will’s cheeks.
“Back before you know it.”
And Will was off with Actaeon bounding ahead of him towards the nearby treeline.
Will spent the better part of the morning high in a blind, peering down at a small brook where, among floating rafts of brown leaves, all manner of life met and drank. There were beavers and badgers and the occasional muskrat; Will spotted a raccoon passing by to dip some prize in the water, and watched a heron pick silvery fish out of the stream with its long, patient beak.
Elk gathered here sometimes; he could tell by the tracks in the soft earth. The thought occurred to him that he may have missed them for the day, and he wondered if they would be back here by twilight for vespers, or congregated only at dawn, then dispersed to thicker woods for the duration of the day.
Actaeon snuffed contentedly at his side. There was a brief scurrying of voles, perhaps a Fox, Will thought, and then his mind began to drift, eyes open but unfocused, thoughts carried along to some formless place by the rill of the brook.
The metal of his rifle had warmed under his skin. Will felt his finger trace the shape of the trigger, and his breath seemed to swell inside him with expectation: If a bull elk were to come just now, loping toward the stream, the burst of impulse in his brain would tighten the muscle of his shoulder, down to his bicep, down to his wrist and trigger finger, and the explosion in the barrel would be a culmination of all that desire, all that hunger.
Maybe this slow, eking hunger was the sensation Hannibal felt all the time. Maybe he lived on this emotion, dully wandering through life on politesse and pleasantry until this one, singular moment presented itself — and then — and then —
The time when he would never have allowed himself to indulge in these kinds of thoughts suddenly felt very long ago. It was easy for Will to empathize; it always had been. But when he let his mind shape itself along the contours of Hannibal’s he found something aside from empathy. There was a correspondence — a fit there. Hannibal gave him the means to experience aspects of his inner world he otherwise desperately ignored.
A breeze stirred the leaves. It must have been a storm gathering, Will surmised, for the wind to penetrate so deeply into the woods.
Maybe the storm will drive them into the woods, he anticipated.
Starlings burst from the brush in a whirl of black iridescence. Will’s mind sharpened again to clarity with the sound of hollow earth underneath hooves — and there he was, loping over the stream, silvery back flexing, the fringe of his mane weathered under his strong neck. Actaeon bristled and straightened, quick to attention, ears alert —
The shot echoed in the trees.
The elk’s hooves slipped on the banks, rocked by the impact of the shell, but it wasn’t a perfect shot; he recovered in the water, righted himself, and with a limping gait bolted deeper into the forest.
Will scrambled down from the blind and Actaeon bounded ahead, his tail high and ears streaming back. Will followed as closely as he could, taking rocks and tree roots underfoot with wide strides, rifle slung over his shoulder.
Here now, deeper in the woods, he could follow the trail of blood, even when Actaeon and the bull were too far ahead to see. He mounted a jagged bank of rock and saw the hound leap into a thicket, where he finally grasped what must have been a hind leg, and from there he was felled.
Will positioned his rifle above the head, to end it quickly. His heaving was like the night in the kitchen when almost everything had come undone, and Will had been quite certain all was lost.
When he pulled the trigger, he felt brilliant, illuminated; he felt like Hannibal must feel, he thought, he felt merged, united with him. The stag died on the cold earth, and Actaeon sought Will’s hand with his bloody snout, and it would be a long walk back to the edge of the wood where the truck was parked, Will knew, but a satisfying one.
Hannibal saw the truck trundle up the drive from the kitchen window. Actaeon was in the cab, and the bed was covered with a black tarp. Will must have done well for himself, he thought. A fastidious hunter, he would field dress whatever he had scored before coming inside. Hannibal decided to change into old clothes to join him.
He had done away with the plastic suit; it wouldn’t do to have it here, where it would only be a temptation. Instead he wore old slacks and a cable knit sweater with a parka over his shoulders; it was cold out, but it would be warm and close in the shed, outside of which Actaeon presently laid, his tired chin resting on outstretched paws.
Hannibal knocked before he entered.
The scene that greeted him reminded him of Randall Tier’s great apparatus hanging from the eaves of Will’s old barn in Virginia, only this time there was blood draining from the emptied carcass into an empty paint bucket placed below on the floor. Had Will been rightly prepared for a stag as magnificent as this, he would have had a larger basin at the ready to catch all the offal and keep the carmine splatter from the floor.
As it was, a tarp had been dragged off to the side with innards politely tucked away, and the bucket did its best, but was not large enough to keep the floor entirely pristine.
Will himself was fairly tidy with the exception of his boots and arms. It was impressive that he managed to keep his rolled sleeves clean, but his forearms were coated in a thick film of drying blood. His chest heaved and his nostrils flared, around the deep breaths he was pulling as he stood back and admired his work.
“What did you have in mind when you imagined new lives for us out here?”
“Nothing you didn’t have in mind for yourself, Will.” Hannibal replied evenly.
His voice had seemed far away when he spoke, so much so that Will was surprised when he felt strong hands resting on either side of his hips.
“It’s quite different, isn’t it?” Hannibal’s mouth was pressed to the shell of his ear now. He felt Hannibal’s body resting over his with the warmth and security of a cloak. “Up on the cliffside with a blade in your hands. This,” Hannibal slid his hand up the length of Will’s forearm and his fingers stuck and stuttered along in the wake of the blood, “was mercy. You wanted to remind yourself of it, yes?”
Will felt the press of Hannibal’s teeth at the crook of his neck.
He shuddered from the base of his cock to the tips of his fingers where the last of the liquid blood cooled and began to flake.
When he opened his mouth to speak, he just sighed wantonly in the back of his throat and relished the feeling of Hannibal’s lips curled against his skin.